After failing to file state and federal financial statements for years, a misstep that resulted in the loss of its tax-exempt status, the New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is the subject of a State Commission of Investigation probe for the second time in less than 20 years.
While the SCI would not confirm or deny any investigative activity, at least half-a-dozen people connected with the NJSCPA say they have already been interviewed or are about to be, as part of the probe. Earlier this spring, NJ Spotlight published a look at the controversial organization, detailing its financial problems and its lack of oversight.
The NJSPCA, a private organization with a 100-plus-year-old charter from the state, has been the focus of controversy for almost two decades. Charged with protecting animals, the group’s senior members are given the power of arrest, carry guns, and yet have little state oversight. The steady drumbeat of criticism reached a crescendo late last year when it was discovered that the organization had lost its tax-exempt status and yet continued to accept public donations without informing donors that their contributions were no longer tax-deductible.
Conflicts of interest
The organization has also been criticized for apparent conflicts of interest, as it regularly purchases services from businesses associated with members of its board — a violation of ethics and nonprofit rules. And it appears to spend far more on lobbying and attorney fees — nearly $400,000 in one year and yet it does not even have invoices for those expenses — than it does on animal care, according to its tax records.
Toni Ising, an animal rescuer from Flemington, said she was interviewed by the SCI, regarding an incident she had with the NJSPCA last August, when she was running a rescue operation out of her apartment and wound up with 61 cats and one dog in there. The NJSPCA charged her with 44 counts of animal cruelty. The charges were ultimately dropped.
“The SCI wanted to know what happened with my case, why it was dismissed,” Ising said.
Another person, who was interviewed by the SCI for three hours but spoke on the condition of anonymity, expects the SCI will once again recommend the dissolution of the agency.
“I think the structure without controls, as it exists, just breeds corruption and misuse of power,” the person said.
Failure to file
News of the investigation comes just months after the state Attorney General’s office sent the agency a letter criticizing its failure to submit financial statements it was required to file on a timely basis. And it gave it 10 days to remedy the situation, or its registration as a charity in the State of New Jersey would be revoked.
The letter, written by Cindy Davis, a deputy director in the Division of Consumer Affairs, went on to say that the NJSPCA was already not in good standing with the state’s Charitable Registration Division because it had failed to file all of its required financial statements going back as far as 2011. The division sent the NJSPCA a letter on December 12, 2016 requesting those documents. The NJSPCA responded by filing several years worth of financial documents with the state, but the division wrote the NJSPCA again on January 27 saying its filings were “insufficient and not adequately responsive.”
The letter then chided the society for having a history of untimeliness in filing its statutorily required reports, such as annual and quarterly filings of its law enforcement activities, in some instances having to be prompted to file, and even then, failing to file reports for every quarter or year. As a result of those concerns, the attorney general’s office demanded that the society file the following reports within 10 days: all of the documents it submitted to the IRS but not limited to its 990s or tax forms from 2011; all certified audits conducted on its books from 2011; a detailed itemized explanation of its sources of revenue and income, outside of fines, dues, grants, fundraising, bequests and endowments, since 2013; a detailed itemized description of its legal, consulting and lobbying expenditures from 2013 to the present, as well as annual budgets and meeting minutes from 2013. The status of those submissions is unclear. When queried, the attorney general’s office replied, “The matter is still under review. There are no additional documents that are public at this time.” The NJSPCA did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
The SCI probe would be at least the third time the agency has been investigated by a state agency in the past 17 years. The SCI issued a report in 2000, saying the organization had a “gun club mentality” and described its members as “cop wannabes.” It listed various abuses, such as agents writing summonses in order to generate revenue. It also called the NJSPCA’s power to carry weapons “the most disturbing area of unbridled authority,” because officers can have guns “without being subject to governmental oversight or to the most stringent government requirements governing legitimate law enforcement officers.” (Not all NJSPCA investigators carry guns. The agency differentiates between “officers” and “agents.” Officers are authorized to carry guns and are trained at the state police academy in the use of firearms.)
The report further noted that agency volunteers drive black and white cars equipped with red lights and sirens, making them look like police cars, and their badges and business cards are similar to those used by the New Jersey State Police. Partly in response to the SCI report, Gov. James McGreevey convened an animal-welfare task force, which issued a report in November 2004 that was equally critical, calling for animal-cruelty complaints to be treated like any other criminal complaint and to be handled by a professional law enforcement agency. But despite the damning reports, few reforms came.
Critics of the agency say the group spends a significant portion of its money on lobbyists, namely, MBI GluckShaw, a well-connected Trenton lobbying firm, to fend off any legislative attempts to rein it in. Matt Stanton, who works at MBI GluckShaw, sits on the NJSPCA’s board.